AWKWARD! Capturing Ideas at Inconvenient Times

IMG_4133I don’t know about you, but over the years, I’ve discovered that inspiration often hits at the most inconvenient times – like when I’m in the shower or in the middle of the night or when I’m out walking the dog.

I’ve developed a few strategies to capture those awkwardly timed bits of inspiration. For starters, I keep a pen and notebook by my bedside for those middle of the night moments. We also have an antique slate chalkboard in our kitchen where I often capture bits of inspiration. (My children know never to erase funny looking word snippets without first checking with me.)  And I always have a pen in my purse. I try to have little notebook as well, but if I don’t I’ve become quite skilled at writing on napkins, old ticket stubs, receipts etc. I’ve also been known, if out and about without the necessary idea capturing tools,  to talk aloud to myself, repeating that perfectly phrased new rhyming snippet, until I get home or find emergency access to pen and paper.

These strategies, however, are far from perfect.

There was the night, for example, when I came up with the perfect third verse for a poem I was working on.  Not wanting to wake my husband, I quickly grabbed my bedside note book and pen and wrote the verse down in the dark.  The next morning I was dismayed to discover the page was completely blank. I’d written with the cap on!

And my children have made it perfectly clear through eye rolls, etc. that they find it embarrassing when we’re walking together and I start to repeat verses out loud while on walks so that I don’t forget them.  Mortified, I think would be the right word their reaction.

That’s why I’m delighted to have hit upon a new idea capturing device – the “notes” feature on my iPhone. Since I’m a terrible at texting – all thumbs as they say-  I use the handy dictation mode to record sparks of inspiration or that perfect phrase for my current work-in-progress.  This system works well, though I have be careful to speak slowly and clearly or the words get jumbled.

What about you?  How do you handle it when creativity strikes when you are busy with something else? I’d love to hear your stories of funny, awkward inspiration moments and/or what you find to be the most effective way to capture ideas.

Happy idea gathering, all!

 

 

TEACHING RESOURCE: Cricket Media Teacher Guides (plus a POEM inspired by Jennifer Cole Judd’s “March”!)

IMG_4122For her birthday, my daughter received a subscription to CRICKET® Magazine, an engagingly written and beautifully illustrated literary magazine for ages 9 – 14 that’s part of a larger family of magazines published by Cricket Media. Other magazines in the group include LADYBUG® Magazine, for ages 3 – 6, and SPIDER® Magazine, for ages 6 – 9. I’m a long-time fan of these magazines. Several of my poems have appeared within their pages, gorgeously illustrated.  With this subscription, however, I’ve had chance to appreciate these magazines from a new angle – that of educator and mom.

As a homeschool mom who seeks to engage my daughter with interesting lessons, as well as ones that align with the common core, I was delighted to discover that Cricket Media has created in-depth teacher guides for each of their magazines. Curious to see what they were like, I downloaded the Teacher’s Guide for the March 2017 issue of CRICKET® Magazine.

The March 2017 CRICKET® Magazine Teacher’s Guide is 26 pages long and includes directions for how to use the guide, a skills and standards overview, plus detailed lesson plans for each story/poem with lots of thoughtful questions relating to key ideas, text structure, various literary elements, vocabulary and more. Each lesson also includes ideas for writing extensions. This month, I’ve been incorporating one story/poem from the issue, along with the accompanying discussion and writing activities, into our weekly literature/language arts lessons.

Early last week, my daughter wrote her own personal narrative as an extension for the first story in the magazine, “Wishin’ Impossible”, and we ended the week with a lovely in-depth analysis and discussion of the poem, “March”, which is found on page 10 of the March issue.

IMG_4124The extra special thing about this particular poem is that I know the author!  Jennifer Cole Judd is not only a talented poet whose work appears regularly in children’s magazines, she is also the author of the delightful rhyming picture book, Circus Train, which was published in 2015 by Two Lions. After a thoughtful discussion of Jennifer’s metaphorical poem which compares March winds to a lion, Miss A. was inspired by to write her own poem.

Thank you, Cricket Media, for creating beautiful literary publications that inspire my reluctant reader to both read and write!  And thank you, Jennifer, for sharing your beautifuly written pieces with the world!

Now, in celebration of reading and writing, here’s Miss A.’s poem:

Enjoy!

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CREATING AND CONNECTING: One Picture Book Author’s Journey

laurasassi5In January the editor of my alumni magazined asked if I might be interested in writing a piece for their new essay series on the Princeton Alumni Weekly website called “Voices”.  My name came to his attention because of my blog (just in case you’ve ever been torn about the benefit vs. effort of keeping a blog), and he asked if I might be interested in writing something about my experiences as an author of children’s books.

I said yes.  And today that piece is live! Titled “Creating and Connecting: One Picture Book Author’s Journey”, the essay is about how my passion for story has opened my heart and broadened my sense of community.  I’d be honored if popped on over for a read. Happy reading all!

 

CROCUSES in FEBRUARY:  Thoughts on Rushing the Writing Process

Look at all these crocuses I spotted in my neighborhood this week. I mean, really, it’s only February, way too soon to be blooming!  Every time I walk past them, I think, what’s the rush?  I mean, they’re dazzling, but still… as a writer I don’t ever want to be tempted to force one of my stories to bloom too soon.

Early on, though, I have to admit I was like a crocus in February, only my stories weren’t dazzling. Far from it. The first few stories and poems I sent to publishers way back when were sent far too prematurely! They were stilted, clumsy and rough.

I should never have forced them to bloom.

It took me a couple of years to really take to heart the truth that good writing takes time – lots of time.  But now that I’m a seasoned writer, I can see that my best pieces are the ones I’ve let sit and then revisited over several nicely spaced intervals.  These intervals can be as short as a week or as long as a year. But, for me, taking time between revisions is a great filter for weeding out unnecessary words, seeing plot flaws and inventing even better twists and turns. The challenge? I’m impatient by nature. But, even though it’s hard, I’ve learned that taking time to let pieces sit between revisions is well worth it.

So back to those February crocuses. They’re pretty, yes, but something about them doesn’t feel quite right. Each time I see them- and they are everywhere this week – I feel the need to remind myself (and maybe you need reminding too) that writing is not a race to get published. Rather it’s a beautiful journey to be savored and enjoyed. So, enjoy the process and remember, you don’t have to be like a crocus in February.  In fact, it’s far better, in my opinion, to let your story bloom when, and only when, it is ready.

The ROSE: A Not Too Sappy Analogy (Well, Maybe a Little)

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I first posted this “rosy” post back in 2013 – my first February blogging.  However, with Valentine’s Day just around the corner, it still feels as fresh and fun as ever.  Enjoy!

It was sleeting and snowing, but I decided to walk anyway. The world was black, white, and gray. Then something pink caught my eye. It was a rose, lying in the slushy street. I picked it up, for it was the perfect cheery burst of color on a dreary day. There must be some analogy to writing here, I reflected. My mind whirred with possibilities.

Nearing home, I crossed an old bridge with a wrought-iron railing. Setting my rose beneath the railing, I searched my purse for my camera to take the perfect shot of my rose set against a gray backdrop. It wasn’t there. Hurrying home, I grabbed it and invited my husband to join me on my picture-taking walk.

As we slushed along, I described my blog idea, that the rose might represent my cheery stories and poems. My husband thought for a moment, then observed, “Laura, the rose is decapitated.”

Then he mused, “And isn’t it odd to find real roses outside this time of year?”

Yes, perhaps, but that just made it more beautiful, right?

We were almost to the bridge when he asked the final blog-zapping question. “Where exactly did you find it?”

I pointed. “Up there, in front of the church.”

“Laura, there was a funeral there this morning.”

With heavy heart, I took my picture.

Once home, I set my rose afloat in a pretty bowl. And though I’ve enjoyed her beauty all week, my cheery analogy feels sappy now.

Now when I look at her all I can think is “heart”. This rose isn’t just some sugar-coated flower. She’s got backstory. First she was cut from the roots and decapitated, then tacked to a hearse, on a one-way trip to the cemetery. By chance she toppled off the hearse and was redeemed. It’s this history that makes her special and gives her dimension. It’s what gives her “heart”.

Likewise, to create heart-felt stories, we must create characters with heart, not just shallow pink rose representations. There are far too many picture books out there with one-dimensional characters. Others tend towards “cute” rather than “clever”, and those stories end up feeling sugar coated and sappy, much like my first rose analogy. But, dig a little deeper, to find the heart of your character’s problem and/or situation and you’ll have a story that resonates deeply with your reader.

Happy writing, all, and may all your stories be rosy (in the not sappy way).

GOODNIGHT, ARK: Original Spread (And a Writerly Pep Talk)

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I love my porch. It’s a wonderful spot for reading, people watching, and playing board games with my kids. It’s also a great landing spot for special packages, like this sturdy parcel which landed here on Friday!

I knew this was my long anticipated birthday/Christmas gift and I couldn’t wait to unwrap it!

First, there was the bubble wrap. Next, I could  could just see the top edge in a tidy plastic encased swirl.

Finally, first through plastic…img_3782

and then – oh my – in my hand!  

img_3783-1It’s the original hand-painted spread for the “Time for bed/It’s getting dark” spread in GOODNIGHT, ARK!  I just love the details in the original – actually being able to see the layering of paint and those tiger whiskers, Jane, are just amazing!  

Thank you, Dad, for this lovely gift, and thank you, Jane for being will to part with one of these treasures!  

img_3786After oohing and aahing with my family, I took the illustration straight to my favorite local framing shop.  And Stefanie and I (Thank you, Stefanie!) spent almost two hours playing with mattes and frames and lay out options.

Now, here’s my writerly pep talk – which I very much needed on Friday, by the way. I had optimistically put $.50 in the parking meter, thinking that an hour would be ample time to select the perfect matte, frame and layout for Jane’s piece.

But after an hour, we still hadn’t found a winning combination. To be honest, I was ready to be finished, but Stephanie handed me $.50 to replenish the meter and so, even though it was raining, I dashed out to buy another hour’s time.

When I returned to the shop, waterlogged, Stephanie said something so simple, yet so wise.  Here are her words:  “Oh, good, we’ve got more time because I think you and I both know it’s not quite working yet.”  I smiled at her honesty.  And somehow, with that truth now out there in the open, it was easier to return to the quest. Indeed, shortly thereafter, tucked low on one of her revolving racks, I found a simple wooden frame that really said “Noah’s Ark” to me. Once we had that, it was suddenly clear as daylight which matte we should use.  What it took was admission that we weren’t quite there yet and renewed intent and joy in the search.  

It’s like that as writers too.  We work and work on a story, at points even hoping that it’s finished and ready to submit.  But, sometimes, it just isn’t and what that story really needs is an honest voice – maybe your own, or maybe that of your critique partner or agent – to say “Keep at it, it’s not quite working yet”.  

Then, even if your spirit feels rained on, go add money to the meter!  Keep at it. Don’t give up! Persevere!  You will make that story sing. It may just take looking at it from a new perspective, digging deep and finding a new ending twist -or bit of arc- tucked low in the recesses of your brain, waiting to be discovered. 

Happy writing this rainy  week and don’t be afraid to add extra money to that meter!

BROKEN SHELLS: Thoughts on Creating Compelling Characters

On our beach vacation, I woke early each morning to go shell hunting. I hoped to find perfectly formed shells, like the ones my grandmother collected. Instead, all I found were broken shells. At first, I was disappointed, then I spied the heart of a broken conch shell and it was love at first sight. Only the innermost swirl remained – smooth and glowing – a survivor of the sea. For the rest of the week, I collected just broken shells – each chipped and worn in its own special way – striking testaments to fantastic journeys of survival in churning seas and crashing tides.

Good characters are a lot like broken shells. If their situation is perfect and/or they have no flaws, they’ve got no reason to grow or change. Then we, as readers, have no great incentive to read their stories. We probably won’t even be able to connect to them because, face it, nobody’s perfect. Broken characters, by contrast, strike a chord deep in readers’ hearts. They give us hope that we too can overcome whatever challenges we face despite, or maybe even because of, our flaws.

This is even true of picture books. Would the classic Curious George books be such kid-hits if that little monkey weren’t so incorrigibly nosy? More recently, would David Shannon’s NO, DAVID, NO! touch the hearts of mothers and sons as deeply, if little David weren’t so perpetually in trouble? And what about Peggy Parish’s forever bumbling Amelia Bedelia, or Bernard Waber’s lovable Lyle, the crocodile, whose sickly green jealousy in LYLE AND THE BIRTHDAY PARTY touches a chord in every kid’s heart. The list of inspiringly imperfect and thus lovable picture book characters goes on and on.

My collection of broken shells now sits in a bowl by my desk, a striking reminder that the best characters we create, the ones that survive in our collective memories, are those that aren’t perfect. Thus, as a writer, I aspire to imperfection in my characters. What about you?

Note: I first posted this oldie but goodie in 2012. It’s still as relevant today as ever and I still have that bowl of shells by my desk as I write.  Happy character building all!

STONE STORIES: What We Write and Why

Do you have favorite stories? Ones that have profoundly changed the way you look at the world?  My childhood favorites include Madeleine L’Engle’s A WRINKLE IN TIME and Kate Seredy’s THE CHESTRY OAK. But the story that’s had the biggest influence on how I view the world as a writer comes from the Old Testament. It’s found in the book of Joshua, chapters three and four. Here’s the gist of the story.

After wandering for forty years in the desert where God repeatedly provided for His people in amazing ways, yet repeatedly, they forgot His blessings, it was finally time to cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land. As God had done before when He parted the Red Sea so the Israelites could safely flee Egypt, He again parted the raging waters of the Jordan River so all of Israel could safely cross into the Promised Land. This time, in hopes they’d never forget His great provision, God instructed Joshua to have twelve men hoist twelve boulders from the center of the still-parted river and place them in a pile on the shore of Promised Land.  “In the future,” Joshua explained, “when your children ask why these rocks are sitting here, tell them the amazing story of how God helped us cross the Jordan River.”

The stories and poems that we write are like those stones. When read, they have the potential to leave a deep imprint in a child’s memory, serving not only as a reminder of experiences past, but offering glimpses into ways that are good, offering hope for the future, and joy in the present moment. It is my deepest wish is that the words I write, whether religious or secular, point kids towards goodness, hope, joy, and God.

What about you?  Have you ever thought about why you write?  If stories are rocks, what kinds of rocks are you writing?

(Note: This post first appeared on my blog in November 2102, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our mission as writers and thought it worth revisiting.)

PERCOLATOR or TEAPOT: What Kind of Writer Are You?

img_3760It doesn’t matter if you prefer coffee or tea. That’s really beside the point. I’m guessing, though, that as a writer you are either a percolator, a tea pot or – like me – a bit of both.

Most of the time, I am percolator. That is, I like to reflect on new stories and poems before writing a first draft. When “percolating” I always keep a pen and notebook handy so I can jot down ideas. I make lists, play with possible plot twists, settings, points-of view etc.  For example, with both Goodnight, Ark and Goodnight, Manger, I filled almost two notebooks with ponderings and word play before I actually sat down and wrote the stories.  Once I was ready to write, I wrote the first drafts of each in one sitting.

I guess you could say at that point, I turned into a teapot!  When I’m in teapot mode, poems and stories just flow, sometimes even overflow out of me. This outpouring often occurs at the most inconvenient times -when I’m cooking, or in the middle of the night. But when it does, I just let my mind shift into story/poem mode and I go with it. Writing in earnest becomes my priority – because once that tea is pouring out of me, it’s impossible to stop. I don’t worry about getting words down perfectly. I just write down the story that’s pouring out as fast as I can. (Occasionally, dinner gets a little overcooked, but don’t worry everyone gets fed.)

But teapot stories are not ready to drink yet. Far from it. Instead, after completing each teapot burst, I turn back into a percolator again, with intermittent bursts of teapot. I repeat this percolator/teapot process again and again until every word and moment pushes the story or poem forward in a fun meaningful way.

Finally it’s time for the finishing touches. At this point, I think rather than teapot or percolator, I become like a fine wine taster- sniffing and swishing – to make sure each sentence, phrase, and plot turn has just the right – je ne sais quoi – so that the story is magnifique – or at least as magnifique as I can make it- before I send it off to my agent to review.

So, dear writing friends, which are you – percolator or teapot?   Happy writing all!

FROSTY LEAVES: Seeing the World with Writerly Eyes

Look what I spotted on my walk  – frosty leaves sparkling in the early morning sun. Covered in the daintiest of crystals, they took my breath away and Sophie and I had to stop for a closer look. While she waited patiently, her sweet pants punctuating the morning cold in little steamy puffs, her tail wagging, I marveled at the intricacy of the crystal patterns and how the frost so beautifully outlined each leafy vein.

As we continued our walk, my mind was already racing in the way a writer’s mind does.  Do you know what I mean? Does your mind race too – forming poems and story lines – just at the sight of, say, morning frost?

img_3744This is not the first time frost has set my imagination in motion.  One early winter morning a couple of years ago, hoarfrost inspired a little poem about a chipmunk scurrying to get ready for winter.  That poem, entitled “Chipmunk’s First Frost”, appeared in the November 2013 issue of Clubhouse Jr.  I wonder what the frost will inspire this time? I’m not sure yet, but I think fairies may play a role.

I LOVE seeing the world through writerly eyes. It makes each day richer and each moment fuller.  I make observations that I might not otherwise, storing up treasured tidbits of humor, irony and beauty that become the spark for writing projects. Even if I never got published, I would still keep writing for it is a wonderful gift to be able to see the world through writerly eyes.

Now, as we start a new year, my heart is filled with joy at all the story and poem possibilities that await, ready for me to embrace – but only if I am attentive in using the gift of these writerly eyes!  HAPPY NEW YEAR and HAPPY WRITING ALL!